Persian Quatrains      

If death means nothingness, then spring deceives,

And every tree is treacherous with leaves

Which lure us to suppose that life survives

Even the winter when the cold lark grieves.


You see that tomb Shah Yussuf raised among

Those roses which he wandered through when young;

You praise the marble hemisphere above:

This greater dome of blue - is it self-sprung?


Last night the nightingale, while passing, cried,

As might have done a swan before it died,

And in the hush that followed, beauty woke

The souls of poets who, asleep, denied.


As men may see a thousand hopes go by,

Mirages melting in the desert sky,

Yet reach the real oasis of the palms,

So slave and sultan, each believing, die.


‘Wine! wine!’ you say, and wine is good to drink,

But not, it seems, if you intend to think;

A little less, and you, perhaps, might find

Some not so bitter way to use your ink.


But are you what you are made out to be -

A cynic with the gift of harmony?

Or has some other written in your name

Lines which distort your own serenity?


For who can see the red rose, hear a bird

Sing out at nightfall one impelling word,

Or taste the grapes decanted into wine,

And, if a poet, call the world absurd?


Philosophers may teach more nonsense than

Could be imagined by the wildest man,

Yet foolish as they are, they seek the light,

Which, in your wisdom, you insist is night.


Both you and I have known the desert, told

Stories about a treasure-house of gold

Beyond the silence of those waves of sand,

And yet how differently our poems unfold.


You see three princes riding from the East,

Drawn by the Sultan to his wedding feast;

You hear the music from the river fleet;

But you, anarchic, feel yourself decreased.


The polo mallets strike the ball awry,

Which rolls across the field to graze afly.

‘This game,’ you say, ‘has neither rule nor goal.’

And as you speak the players score their try.


Disparate though we are, we both make sure

Of colour to enrich each miniature:

Yours is a scene of desperate revellers; mine,

A sultan in disguise who feeds the poor.


The new moon, rising, silvers each blue dome,

And silvers all the drinkers, staggering home;

So poetry gives its beauty every way

And silvers falsehood in a well-wrought poem.


Thus you can triumph with your sceptic smile,

Who watch Euphrates flow away like Nile.

‘Rivers of Paradise,’ you say, and laugh.

But the poor go off to Heaven all the while.


The potter throws the clay and sees it whirl;

The jeweller searches for a flawless pearl;

In other booths the merchants bargain, but

In ours the pipes of controversy skirl.


For here beneath this deep melodic flow

Of lulling music comes the undertow;

Two rival systems battle for the soul,

And which is chosen only the listeners know.


You throw the dice, it seems, at random, yet

Strangely these numbers have discretely met

Before: the hidden sides, you say, are blank,

But now I show them, and you lose your bet.


Marked cards or loaded dice may here beguile,

Though at the cost of an hysteric smile:

This game is played for good: that drum, that drum,

That distant drum sounds nearer mile by mile.


Death, the last vizier, will inspect your heart.

Will there be nothing there but ruined art?

Only the saints are poets in Paradise.

‘Too late,’ you say. But not too late to start.


No doubt the owl is hooting in the halls

Where princes walked; no doubt the jasmine falls

In golden torrents where no peacock stalks:

Both prince and peacock flew above your walls.


And now are elsewhere - prince, judged justly on

His minor judgements from his minor throne:

And peacock, innocent, unjudged, at ease

In gardens where no ruffling wind is known.


Why must you limit what you see to night?

Others expect, and not in vain, the light

Of dawn to dazzle on their waking eyes.

Poor poet blundering from too little sight.


Look, dawn approaches, silent and serene,

Foretelling what two poets might have been.

But now the sun gilds with a Persian grace

Both poets in a Paradisal scene.


Here let us end this disputation, take

Our pleasure on the blue ethereal lake

Whose waters show us Persia far below,

For at this moment now, you see, we wake.